With some planning and strategy, Disney World can be a wonderful experience for those with ADHD (Attention-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder), ADD (Attention-Deficit Disorder) and ODD (Opposition Defiant Disorder), and their families.
We interviewed Jim West LMHC, NCC of the Total Life Counseling Center in Orlando, Florida (www.Totallifecounseling.com). Jim specializes in ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), ADD (attention deficit disorder) and ODD (oppositional defiance disorder) and he’s also a frequent visitor to Disney. He had a lot to share.
We recognize that ODD is different from ADHD and ADD, but we’ve included it in this section (you’ll see the ODD topic label) since it was discussed with Jim in the same interview. You’ll find the ODD information towards the end of the article.
Please be aware that any advice here is for informational purposes only. Please check with your own doctors to make sure these strategies are appropriate for your child. Here are Jim’s insights:
Disney World can be a great experience for those with ADHD and ADD
According to Jim, ADHD and ADD are not as big problem at Disney as it is in a classroom setting. Jim shared that Dr. Russell Barkeley, a renowned neurophsychiatrist and leading expert on ADHD says that people with this problem have a lack of internal motivation to do anything they’re not excited about or to do anything that requires a sustained mental effort. Jim says that adults with these problems will be in their element. They’ll enjoy the stimulation, and they tend to have developed mood control, so they won’t be that impacted by having to wait in lines. However kids usually can’t go more than 5 minutes doing something that they’re not excited about. Since there’s so much to excite these kids at Disney it can be a fantastic and fun place for them, however he feels that there will be some challenges.
Waiting for attractions and parades at the Disney World Parks
When kids have ADHD or ADD, they feel things much more intensely than kids without these problems. Everything is magnified. Anyone will feel bored waiting in a line, but these kids will feel extreme boredom. They get very frustrated and angry quickly. Jim suggests you plan in advance for waiting in the queues. Consider bringing items such as a handheld video game system or other activities to keep them occupied. Use the FASTPASS system as much as possible, and read the DAS (Disability Access System) section of this site to see if that might be helpful for you.
If you decide to wait for a parade, know that this will be difficult for your child. People start waiting on the parade route early – sometimes an hour or two prior to the parade. You might want to take your chances and try to pop in at the last minute, or have someone hold a spot for you while you go on a ride. Try to come back just before the parade starts, but if the crowd gets too thick, you may not be able to reach the area where your spot is being held. This will depend upon the area you choose to wait in, and the crowd conditions. Have a plan to meet your party if you can’t reach them during the parade.
Types of attractions for those with ADHD & ADD
According to Jim, these kids are often adrenaline junkies, so they like the intense stuff like roller coasters. They’ll be a little more wound up after riding, but they’ll love it. They tend to drag their parents onto next ride, but if they don’t get to go on a ride they’re interested in, they’ll be mad.
If you’re in a line to take a photo with a Disney character, and if they’re heart isn’t in it, they could get very upset. Jim suggests avoiding attractions that may not be exciting enough to hold their attention, such as the Hall of Presidents in Magic Kingdom. They’re likely to verbalize their feelings out loud (especially younger children) by saying something like “this is so boring, why can’t we go on rides!”
If you really want to visit an attraction that your child won’t enjoy, and you have more than one adult in your party, consider splitting up. One adult can take the child to a more stimulating ride, and the others in your party can visit the “boring” attraction. You can then meet up and switch if you wish.
Whether it’s appropriate for you to take your child to scary attractions like the Haunted Mansion or Tower of Terror depends on the child. You’ll know if your child gets scared easily and shouldn’t be exposed. Do not traumatize a child by bringing him on a ride that’s too scary for him/her. Use the rider switch program if you want to try an attraction that’s not appropriate for your child.
Wanting to repeat attractions over and over at the Disney World parks
Some kids will feel so much excitement on a ride they’ve just finished that they’ll want to go back on the moment they’re off. Remember they feel perhaps 3 times more excitement than the average kid, so of course they’re going to want to do it again.
They may experience anger and frustration with having to move on, and if they don’t get their way, they may act out. You might try saying something calmly like “I really see you had a great time on that ride and I see how it could be good for you to ride it again. Maybe we can do that a little later”. If the child balks, say it again. You might also add something like the following: “We also need to think about your brother and sister and we need to do what they want to also. Part of being a good family member is not only doing what you want to do but what they want to do.”
Safety at Disney World for those with ADHD & ADD
These kids often exhibit a lack of inhibition or safety awareness, and they don’t monitor themselves well. They usually don’t think about the risk involved with their actions. In the Disney parks they may not be aware of what’s around them. Younger children may run out in front of a vehicle during a parade without thinking about it. You must watch them carefully. They also wander away because they’re distractible, so you’ll need to keep them where they can be seen at all times. Always hold your child’s hand, or if they’re younger, consider a child leash. Jim says that though some people think those leashes are horrible, they’re sometimes necessary for the safety of your child (see the section Separating or Getting Lost and Prevention).
Diet while at Disney World for those with ADHD & ADD
Jim recommends a diet that increases protein and decreases their carbohydrates and sugar intake. He tests his clients for and treats any nutritional deficiencies, and he finds that diet is extremely important to those with ADD and ADHD. Jim finds that they feel the effects of carbohydrates and sugar much more than the average person. Since the condition is a neurobiological issue, he feels that feeding them carbs and candy will make the condition much worse. While in the parks he suggests that you be sure to give them plenty of protein so their moods won’t be so intense. He finds the turkey legs available at some counter-service restaurants to be a great idea. He strongly suggests that you avoid carbs as much as possible, or they’ll crash.
He notes that while at Disney you’re likely to be walking quite a bit more than usual, so that exercise might give your child slightly more leeway. If you decide to give them some carbohydrate or sugar, be sure to balance it with protein to avoid a crash.
Jim notes that when children are hyperactive, they have a lot of physical energy, but mental energy drops. They get really cranky, intensely fatigued and have little control. He finds that the solution to this is the above diet.
Medication for those with ADHD & ADD
Some doctors allow you to take a break from medication on the weekends to allow for growth, as the medications can suppress growth. When you travel to Disney, Jim suggests that you don’t give them the weekend break from their meds. Talk with doctor to make certain this is appropriate for your child.
More on ADHD and ADD while at Disney World
In addition to Jim West’s insights, here are some ideas you may be able to use.
Carry bags or knapsacks: There’s a good chance you’ll be carrying a number of items with you in the parks. For example, as described above you’ll be bringing items such as healthy snacks and computer games. Be sure to bring a bag that you find comfortable to carry such as a knapsack.
Medication: Read the Medication & Medical Supplies section.
Planning: Research the parks and attractions before your visit, and choose your activities in advance. This will allow you to avoid attractions that your child may have difficulty with, and to include those that he/or she will enjoy. We have in-depth descriptions of every ride, show and attraction at Disney World here.
Plan together to prepare your child: Allow your child to participate in this process by reading together and viewing photos and videos online. www.Youtube.com is a great resource.
Schedule in advance: Create a daily schedule that includes your dining reservations and have an attraction wish list for your park visits, with the attractions listed in order of priority. When you’re at Disney, go over the list each morning. When you visit the parks, allow your child to “help” by giving them a park guide map and a daily schedule to hold (if that appeals to them). Let them know in advance that they may not be able to get on every ride they want to visit. Remember to stay flexible in the parks. Creating a touring plan in advance is great but you’ll need to allow flexibility to accommodate your child’s needs.
Behavior guidelines: Some parents find it helpful to write out behavior guidelines for the child prior to the trip. They go over them regularly with their child before and during the trip.
Rest & relaxation time: Build rest time into your schedule to avoid having your child become overtired or over stimulated. Also find ways for you to relax while your child is blowing off steam. For example, if they’re old enough to swim on their own in a guarded pool, the Disney pools can be a great place for you to relax on the sidelines while they swim.
In Disney Springs, The Lego Store in the Marketplace area can be highly entertaining for your child. There are free building stations, and kids can play as long as they like.
In the parks, kids can blow off a lot of steam in the play areas such as on Tom Sawyer Island in Magic Kingdom, the Honey, and The Boneyard in Animal Kingdom.
More on waiting: Waiting is a major issue for those with ADHD and ADD. Cut down the waiting whenever possible, and when it’s not possible, bring entertainment for your child. In addition to Jim West’s suggestions, consider bringing or renting a car so that you don’t have to wait in line for Disney transportation. Except for Magic Kingdom, you’ll also be able to drive directly to your destination rather than having to make other stops first.
Bring small travel games, word puzzles and game books to play with in your room or in queues. The Disney Queue Line Survival Guidebook by Kimberly Button, or Hidden Mickeys by Steven Barrett may both be great investments.
If possible, visit Disney during a slower crowd period (see the crowd Size information in our Pick Your Vacation Dates article). Crowds mean much longer waits in lines.
Sometimes when ride vehicles arrive at the deboarding area, kids will attempt to leave before they should. This could be dangerous. Let your child know that when a ride is over, until your ride car comes to a complete stop, AND you say it’s okay to deboard, he/she must stay in the ride car. This should be a part of your behavior guidelines sheet that you create and go over with them in advance.
The resort food courts tend to be crowded and hectic at meal times, with breakfast usually being the most challenging meal time. If this is the only dining option in your resort, you may wish to prepare a simple breakfast in your room such as protein bars, peanut butter, bagels or cereal. Consider staying in a Disney villa or suite with a kitchen. This will allow you to dine in your room without having to handle crowds and lines.
More on Diet: There are many food temptations around the parks, so it’s important to plan accordingly. We suggest bringing healthy high protein/low sugar/low carb snacks (like a protein bar) to the park to reduce temptation. Don’t allow your child to get very hungry or it may be more of a struggle to get them to comply with the low sugar and low carb diet. Time your meals and snacks to avoid blood sugar dips, and be sure to keep your child hydrated. Anyone who’s been on any kind of diet can tell you that when you’re extremely hungry it’s much more difficult to maintain self-control, so avoid excessive hunger.
Dining in a full-service restaurant has its pros and cons. On one hand the experience takes longer than counter-service dining, and there tends to be longer waits for your food. On the other hand, some of the full-service restaurants are highly entertaining, and there’s usually more support for special dietary needs.
If you choose to dine in full-service restaurants, be sure to make your reservations as far in advance as you can. Read the Walt Disney World Dining chapter and consider choosing restaurants that have a lot of entertainment value. Possible choices include 50’s Prime Time or Sci-fi Dine-In Theater in Hollywood Studios, and Biergarten or Restaurant Marrakesh in Epcot if you time your meal to see the show.
Buffets throughout Disney usually don’t have long lines, but that can depend on crowd conditions and the particular restaurant design. Much of the time you can get your food quickly at the buffets. On the down side, it may be challenging to keep your child from eating the sugary desserts that are found on all the Disney buffets.
ODD (Oppositional Defiance Disorder – Interview with Jim West, LMHC, NCC continued)
Friends and groups: According to Jim West, oppositional kids are usually teenagers. They tend to get mad when they’re not getting their way, but in the Disney parks they may not get in as much trouble as they would in school or at home.
Jim cautions against bringing a group of teenagers or even a single “partner in crime”. If teens have had trouble with things like theft, vandalism or trespassing, they won’t usually act out by themselves. He suggests that these kids should not be permitted to come with a group of other teens or even with a friend. If they ask that a friend be allowed to come on this visit, say no. If you must bring a peer along, be sure it’s not someone who will be a bad influence, or who could be easily influenced. Have them stay with you at all times, and don’t let them roam the parks on their own. Make your visit a family occasion and supervise them at all the times.
Parents need to set parameters before they leave. For example, let them know that if they don’t behave, you’ll have to go home. Jim finds that teenagers are dying for independence, and since adolescence is biologically adulthood, he suggests talking with them like adults with respect.
Meltdowns: Often ODD kids can keep it together in the parks without having meltdowns because Disney is a fun environment where they’re not being told what to do a lot. If you’re a local family and your child does act out at Disney, consider leaving your ODD child with a sitter that can handle their behavior. Take the rest of the family to Disney so that they’re not being punished for the ODD Childs’ behavior.
Parenting tactics: ODD kids often have parents that are not on the same page. One parent tends to be restrictive and the other more lenient. When the child can’t get their way from the restrictive parent, they’ll go to the other parent. This can cause the parents to fight. Jim suggests parents try to work things out in advance so they can stay on the same page during the trip.
Both parents should agree on rules. Then when the child asks for anything, make sure that both parents agree on a decision. Don’t allow the child to get between you, and to play you against each other. If one parent imposes consequences, the other should stand behind it. If you disagree, stand behind it anyway and discuss it later so that you can prepare for future situations.
If you have a divorced family, sometimes a child will use a cell phone to call the absent parent to get them involved so they can get their way. They can make the “mom won’t let me….” type of call. Don’t let them do it. Take the phone away during your visit so that there’s no triangulating.
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